“I think often what can happen with period pieces, as well as Westerns, is they just get kind of fancy—and sometimes, it works for the story. But when you look at pictures from the time period of towns all over the U.S., on the edge of things, things were rough. No one was worrying about having the perfect colored front door.” — David Crank
On Paul Greengrass’s News of the World, production designer David Crank recreated six cities and invented another in charting the 1870s Texan journey of a news reader and his charge.
While the story spanned over 300 miles, the film was shot within a 30-mile radius of Santa Fe, New Mexico. On the famed Bonanza Creek Ranch, Crank reconstructed parts of Wichita Falls, Red River Station and Dallas.
To preserve the illusion of separate cities within one shooting location, the overarching Western set was turned over every four to six days, repainted and shot at different angles.
For Wichita Falls, one key set was what Crank calls an “impersonal” wool barn, where lonely traveler Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks) gives his first reading.
For the cattle crossing Red River Station, meanwhile, Crank built out a section of the largest military outpost in Northern Texas.
One of the larger cities Crank tackled, Dallas was augmented with visual effects. Key set pieces contributing to its sense of scale were a hotel, dining room and Masonic Hall.
The film’s only fictional town, Durand was a chaotic fiefdom brought to life on Eaves Ranch, its notable features including a deserted military camp and a “dangerous and uncontrollable” town square.
For more from our conversation with the News of the World production designer about the work that went into his first collaboration with Greengrass, read on.
DEADLINE: From what I understand, News of the World is your first Western. How did you come to work on the film, and what excited you about it?
DAVID CRANK: I had worked with Playtone several times, and I came to it through them, through [producer] Gary [Goetzman] and [EP] Steve Shareshian. I had not read the book [by Paulette Jiles], but when they sent me the script, the first script we had was very close to the book—and then Paul went back in to change it.
Oddly enough, I never really consciously thought about it as a Western. It was just a great story. It was a period that I find interesting, right after the [Civil] War, and it combined all the wonderful things of being huge and being small. I was very intrigued by Paul because I knew his work, but not him, and he’s a really good storyteller. So, that was a big draw, because this is just a lot of story.
DEADLINE: What did you discuss with Greengrass prior to the shoot? Did you bring a lookbook or research materials to your first meetings?
CRANK: Not to the initial ones because it was all done by Skype. He was in England and I was in Virginia. I think the big thing he said to me was about keeping it real and unadorned, and I knew the producer was very clear about that. He said, “[Paul’s] very concerned that it always be real and look real. He won’t shoot something if he comes on and thinks it doesn’t look real.”
So, that was drilled in, but that’s great because the work I’ve always done has had that bent. No matter what the situation was, it’s still about finding what’s real about it. I worked with a theater designer once who said, “It’s our job to set the scene and get out of the way,” and I think that was a good [approach] for this story, because you do want to set it, but then it is about these two people. So, you didn’t want your stuff getting in the way.
DEADLINE: Could you describe the research process you engaged in during prep, and the kinds of resources you turned to? This film presented a unique challenge, in that it required you to dive deep into the history of a number of very different Texan cities.
CRANK: That was one of the things that Paul and I talked about in the very first interview, was that if they were going to go through five cities, each one had to have a point. Otherwise, it just becomes, “Oh, they’re in another town.” It doesn’t really matter. So we did work on that, especially with my set decorator Elizabeth Keenan, to really try to find out what the purpose of that town was, what its size was, what the people there were doing, what kind of businesses would be there. A lot of that is passed over, only because in serving the story, sometimes it’s too much information. But it does give you something, so that when you do the sets and they arrive, whatever they’re going to shoot, each of them has a point of view. I think that is what you’re always searching for.
I started very early. I started in April, and my crew didn’t start until about the 4th of July. I did a lot of research with photo collections in the Library of Congress. There was a wonderful collection of glass plates in the Oakland Museum that was actually towns in Colorado, but it was the exact same time that our story took place, and they were great for seeing how towns grew up in the West. You saw towns of all different sizes; they were taken as part of recording how the railroad was built across the U.S., so that was perfect. In Texas, there were several historical societies that I got photos from.
Coupled with going through research, [there was] location scouting, which we did several times, starting in April, and part of [the challenge] is, the story covers such a geographical distance. So, there was a lot of trying to map out what the landscape historically was in each of those places, so that we could find replicas. Because that was also quite important, that you went through all these different kinds of landscapes.
It’s quite a journey from the top of Texas down to the bottom, and you had a lot of different influences, and this was interesting because it was kind of the line right at the edge of the U.S. population. Because right to the west of it, you went into Kiowa and Native America land. This was the leading edge, so it was the most rough and primitive. They weren’t at all established towns until you get to San Antonio.
Paul wanted to use the landscape as connecting pieces with these towns, so we made a big file up of all the vast landscapes, and then went through to see how they would fit into each place, and which one would work for him.
DEADLINE: What exactly did the location scouting process look like?
CRANK: We were only traveling in a 30-mile-radius circle. We weren’t able to go way east, west and north because it’s too far to travel. It was so much story to shoot that you couldn’t really move people around that much. But fortunately, [near] Santa Fe, you go through a lot of elevations, which gives you a lot of different greenery, too, which was helpful—and we chose a couple of large ranches. One ranch was something like 25, 30 miles wide; it was huge, so there was a lot of landscape on that one.
DEADLINE: Why was New Mexico the right place to shoot this film?
CRANK: I’m sure there were some incentives involved. They’re part of everything today. But really, that part of Texas where the story takes place, you can’t shoot it anymore. It’s so overpopulated, so grown up. But [New Mexico] is just full of wide open, unspoiled land, so that really was the best place to do it.
DEADLINE: How did you come to shoot scenes for three cities, all on Bonanza Creek Ranch? What kinds of challenges and benefits did this production strategy present?
CRANK: There were several ranch towns around Santa Fe that have all been built for films, and this was one of them. We ended up using two; we were going to use three, possibly four, but it became logistically hard, and also financially.
So, we actually made all three towns in one town. It took a lot of planning so that you didn’t see the same parts, but this town we used was set up in a way that you could enter it three different ways, and if you passed the same thing, you didn’t realize it. It was an existing town that had been used for 20, 30 years and had been added to. I think it started as one building in the middle, and people kept coming and adding more, so it became a town over time.
We reshaped it. We added pieces; we redid pieces. All of the interiors were shot in actual interiors that we remade, so it was a combination of everything. But we didn’t build it straight from the ground, which I liked. I think it’s better to start with something, because things have a bit of life and character, and you just add to them.
So, it was great. It wasn’t very far from Santa Fe, so it was very easy and production-friendly, getting people in and out, and all of that. You could find some [other] wonderful places, but they were in the middle of nowhere, and there was nowhere to put a company, so it was kind of useless.
DEADLINE: Given the nature of the story you were telling, the fabrication of period newspapers became an additional creative challenge. What was the approach there?
CRANK: Because of all these readings, I think there were 15 or 16 that we had to prepare. It was very specific in the script, which papers [Captain Kidd] read from, so we had to have them all ready, and Paul was very, very particular about the paperwork. So, most all the papers, except the one in Durand, were actual newspapers. A lot of them had been long out of print, but we were able to find them. But then, we had to go in and add our parts to them, and move [things] around. We’d have to print them all out, and put them on a wall, and he would come in and go over them very meticulously.
Newspapers are hard because they can always look like a really bad prop, and when we first started them, I said to Paul, “The writing in these newspapers is just miniscule. I can’t read them. What do you want to do?” And I think Tom came up with that thing of reading it with the magnifying glass, which I thought was pretty wonderful.
It was interesting because the [newspapers] that were original, that we bought from collectors or whatever, were in pretty doggone good shape. They weren’t falling apart, but I had a graphic designer, who did the layout on all of them. Then, we found a company in Los Angeles to print on a kind of Japanese newspaper that was big enough, and that had the closest texture to the newsprint of that period. Newsprint now is a lot slicker. It holds the ink differently, and it’s a grayer color. So, this Japanese paper, the color was right, and the texture and the way the ink set on it was correct. The other hard part is, those are all printed on the press, so they’re all almost embossed. You don’t print them that way anymore, so this kind of hid that, so they didn’t look so flat.
DEADLINE: Which town in News of the World was the most challenging to recreate?
CRANK: I think the hardest one was probably Dallas and Red River, because by that point, you were on the third incarnation of the town, and you were like, “This is either going to be wonderful, or it’s going to be a bust. I’m not sure which.” [Laughs] That was probably the hardest because it was the biggest leap from what was there, and done very fast.
DEADLINE: What would you say were the highlights of your experience on this film?
CRANK: I lived through it all. [Laughs] When they’re this big and sprawling, they’re always exciting because you’re never stuck in one set for a week. You don’t get precious with any of it because you’ve got 50,000 other things to do, and that’s kind of exhilarating. But also, the story lends itself to being that way because it’s just so big, and you don’t [often] get to do things quite that big.